Category Archives: The Weird Weird West

Notes from Flagstaff

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“As for me, I am a watercolor./I wash off.” -Anne Sexton, “For My Lover, Returning to his Wife


It should be monsoon season in Flagstaff but the air is bone-dry and the only thing in the sky that isn’t hazy blue is a plume of wildfire smoke. I sit in a tea house while “Back in the USSR” plays on the radio, sipping oolong and watching passerby walk up Aspen Avenue in downtown Flagstaff. It’s just like the old days, or just like how I remember the old days, but something is different. I’m just like the passerby now. I can no longer be a smug local people-watching the tourists.

My childhood in northern Arizona was defined by two local features: The inevitably of wildfires and the possibility of leaving for outer space. In 1884, a fire destroyed Old Town, leaving only the part of the city closest to the tracks. Ten years later, Percival Lowell founded an observatory on a hill above the city to look for life on Mars, though his research would later lead to the discovery of Pluto. Flagstaff is a city of dreamers, artists, mystics, and scientists. I landed squarely in one of these quadrants, or all of them.

I left Flagstaff four years ago. It’s not as if this city is completely different. Instead, Flagstaff to me has entered the uncanny valley. It’s familiar enough that I recognize it for what it’s supposed to be, but enough of it has changed that it just doesn’t feel right. I am also a different person. We meet one another, the city and I, halfway at our respective crossroads, doing double takes.

Still, I have connections. In a tiny house in a semi-familiar neighborhood, I help fold veggies into egg roll dough with four Flagstaff friends, two married couples, both of whose weddings I missed because I was traveling or had already skipped town. We sit outside under strings of lights in the now seasonably warm evening air and catch up.

I used to live with one friend here in a house on Talkington Street near the ski resort. I’m glad how familiar this scene still is, how easy it is to cook with friends after so long apart. Later, we chat about people we remember from high school, wherever they’ve ended up. Sammie shows me an art project. Cari is going to seminary in New England in a few weeks. Ryan is preparing another album after a month-long tour.

This is the Flagstaff I have always known, catering to the ambitious and the adamant. Following the emergence of art, mysticism, and dreams, though, there is always some form of commercialization, and Flagstaff is not immune from the power of Capital to market nostalgia.

It’s fitting that the first settler structure here was a saloon, before the loggers and miners moved in. Gun violence was commonplace. In one apocryphal account, there was a saloon murder every week between 1882 and ’83. Were it not for the scientists who took an interest in the region, John Wesley Powell and Percival Lowell, Flagstaff would have likely become one more ghost town or company town, its residents finally driven out when logging and mining came to a standstill. Instead, Flagstaff became a tourist town and a college town. And, at a certain point, the college experience is sold to high school graduates using the same advertising techniques that tourist traps use. Come for the mountain view, stay for the nostalgia.

Except, most people who can afford to stay in Flagstaff are long-time residents. And expensive student housing structures have popped up across from the tracks, and parking is now regulated with warnings and tickets, and there’s a fire close to my old neighborhood. The last few days I’m here, my phone is constantly buzzing with evacuation alerts and flash flood warnings from late rainstorms. I am used to waiting for evacuation notices. This is something they don’t advertise in the college brochures, to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, to have a bag packed at the door. And I heed the warning. I am ready to leave.

-jk

Notes from the Four Corners

Desert 6.JPG“I cannot hate them, the tourists, because I am one.” -Nabil Kashyap, The Obvious Earth

They say that when you first encounter the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, it can be disappointing for two reasons. First, it is situated in a relatively small room that is always packed with visitors, so many that you have to shove to reach the painting, and second, even if you make it to the Mona Lisa, the painting itself is small and unsurprising. You already know what the Mona Lisa looks like. You can buy a poster of it in the gift shop. Instead, it’s the art in the hallway outside the Mona Lisa room, the unfamous work you’ve never seen before, that leaves an impression. The Four Corners Monument is similar.

Two days before the country celebrates its independence, I drive through the desert to Colorado, and make a stop at the Four Corners, between Navajo and Ute Mountain land. I drive slowly over the dirt road, following cars and followed by campers. I find a parking space and step out of the air conditioning into the heat. It is exceptionally hot, barely a cloud in the sky. I’m used to this. I’ve almost missed the heat, living in northern Idaho for so long.

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The Four Corners Monument is a square of shaded stands around the circular marker itself, directly where the four state borders meet at 90 degree angles, distinguishing jurisdictions and electoral districts from one another. When I enter the square, I’m confused about which state I’m in, but it becomes clear when I see the four stone markers around the circle indicating each respective state, like cardinal directions. There is a long line of people in front of the circle, each tourist standing in summer wear and waiting to stand in the circle to have their picture taken straddling as many US states as one can.

I don’t get in line because it’s hot and I’m on my way to meet a friend I haven’t seen since I visited Albuquerque in winter, and I impulsively don’t want to be a tourist. I grew up in a tourist town, as a local. It’s a habit I can’t shake off, wanting to distinguish myself from them. I’m not any different from the tourists, though, not here. I walk the square of shops in the shade, passing people eating fry bread from paper plates, passing locals selling jewelry, knives, Kokopelli decorations.

In Portland this spring, I saw Nabil Kashyap give a talk about the colonial nature of travel writing, the fraught history of the travelogue. Historically, the genre frames the traveler as a hero and the place visited as a backdrop for the hero’s self-discovery, transforming locals into objects, props. Kashyap’s own collection of travelogues wrestles with this history. In his panel, he advocated for a more ethical form of travel writing that “decenters the visitor” and emphasizes the place, the people, without claiming ownership over the stories that are intrinsic to the place and people. This time last year, a lot of people noted that Anthony Bourdain was an exemplar of this kind of travelogue, taking the role of a reporter, letting people tell their stories on their own terms.

Desert 2At the edge of the square, there is a sign telling visitors not to spread ashes of the deceased here because the scattering of human remains on this land goes against Navajo custom. I wonder how many tourists scattered their dead relatives at the Four Corners before the locals had to put up the sign. Despite the signs, tourists still come to the Four Corners and spread cremated relatives on this special dot on a map. I think about how weird it is to celebrate the alignment of state borders here in the Southwest. 150 years ago, this was Brigham Young’s Mormon territory called Deseret. 160 years ago, this was Mexico. 250 years ago, this was Spain. 450 years ago, this was Pueblo land. Statehood was only granted to Arizona in 1912. The land may appear static, but its cartographic meaning is always changing.

Instead of standing on the corners, I wander out to the trailhead up the hill from the square, but only a little ways. I’m not equipped for a hike in the desert at noon. I look out at the windswept emptiness of one state or another, this stateless terrain. I’m the only one who walks this way, and I’m glad to be out of the crowd. Later, I use the bathroom. I buy some fry bread. I take some photos. I leave with my fingers sticky with powdered sugar, wishing I could hike around this place in cooler weather, see what else it has to offer.

-jk

 

Notes from Portland

Portland

“Maybe 1978 was the year the 1960s ended and the 1980s began. Maybe there were no 1970s.” -Rebecca Solnit, The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness

My generation talks about Portland, Oregon, the way my parents’ generation talked about California in the 1960s, in that supposedly magical decade when Haight-Ashbury was for free-thinkers and runaways and Hollywood was a place of romance rather than violence, a place of paradise, freedom, and escapism, or at least just a place to escape to.

For a lot of us born in the 1990s, I think, the Pacific Northwest is still seen as a kind of paradise. I know a dozen people who went to Portland after graduating from college or instead of college, and I know more who talk about going there sometime in the future. In the American West, I think, many of us see it as the only remaining authentic counter-cultural scene, now that Seattle has been corrupted by Amazon and Boeing. It’s paradise, and like California before the cults and murders, this reputation is equally earned and exaggerated.

I will admit that, when I visited last week, I was struck by this city, by its oblique beauty and opaque optimism. But I’m also ambivalent. It’s not romantic to me, but familiar. It’s just like being back home in Flagstaff, Arizona in all the best and worst ways, because it’s a tourist destination, which means that what is visible to the visitor is only one side of the stage the city wants to present. Tourists never peek behind the curtain to see the other city inside the city, or rather, they do, constantly, but choose to ignore anything that disrupts the sense of paradise, the escapism that tourism is built on, a centuries-old colonial logic that treats any visited people or place as a cultural buffet. I recognize the theatricality, the performativity. I lived for two decades as a local in Flagstaff, on the side of town the tourists never go to.

Gentrification is to tourism as imperialism is to capitalism, in which those with economic power, in a given city’s financial Center, invade a marginalized community or neighborhood, buy out its necessary businesses (laundromats, corner stores, diners), and replace them with yuppy businesses that those in the community cannot afford, forcing them to look elsewhere for laundry or food. Meanwhile, the gentry have a new colony in a part of town with cheap rent from which to sell artisinal donuts to wealthy newcomers, or to all the tourists.

I went to Portland as a tourist—as the gentry, as the colonist—for the annual AWP conference. 15,000 writers and publishers descended on the City of Roses to network and share journals and thoughts and their creative work. To be clear, this conference was productive for publishers, writers, for a variety of literary communities, and for me personally as well as professionally. But like all conferences, it came at the expense of the environment and the local community.

Portland is a strange place because it simultaneously compels me to want to be more compassionate to others, while also reminding me how insufficient compassion is, despite its urgency, despite its necessity.

But I see the appeal of the dream here, too. I see why my friends relocated to this gritty, green, rusting city, this place of wondrous contradiction, where the river pushes past the streets and Mount Hood is always watching over the mossy brown cacophony of the landscape, the patches of cherry blossom trees, the network of trains and the bicyclists and the sense of cheerful nihilism. I want to be a part of this scene. I want to fit in here. I do fit in here, feel a kinship with the sense of possibility, the sense of communal towardness to one another, despite the likeliness that this sense is more a product of my 1990s imagination, driven by Twin Peaks and The X-Files. But, like any glorified past, maybe there were no 1990s.

Portland is no paradise—I’m not naïve; I grew up in a city that people from Phoenix called utopic when they came to ski and drink while my friends on the other side of the tracks dealt with floods, fires, and catastrophic rent hikes. But still: I’ve always felt out-of-place until coming to Portland, where I felt like it didn’t matter if I was a tourist or a local, as if the difference dissolved and waking up in Portland felt like deja vu, but in a good way, like delirium. A tourist seals this feeling up for himself, like a trinket; what can I do, instead, to fight for a world in which this sense of immediate community, this impulse toward affinity despite factual difference, is common for everyone else?

-jk

Notes from Albuquerque

four horseman of the western statueEvery time I visit this city, it finds new ways to surprise me. There is no planning for contingency here. Last week, I returned to Albuquerque for the 40th annual Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference to present a paper (animal studies, rats, Paris, Ratatouille, and so on) alongside a broad, interdisciplinary spectrum of scholars.

There was an eco-feminist reading of Hey Arnold! There was a close reading of Nick White and Paulo Bacigalupi’s portrayal of toxic water (in the context of the crisis in Flint, Michigan). There was a critical assessment of whether or not altering National Parks iconography is a useful political strategy against selling public lands to corporate interests. This conference is my  favorite, more than the national PCA conference and even AWP (where everyone is trying to hide how stressed-out they are). Maybe it’s the Breaking Bad T-shirts in the hotel lobby, or the actual meth dealers just down the street on Central Avenue, but for whatever reason, this particular conference allows scholars, an otherwise overly serious bunch, to take themselves just a little less seriously.

I’ve missed the high desert, the southwestern aesthetics, the tan and adobe architecture. I’ve missed the sunlight and the dryness. But this is Albuquerque, a city of endless surprise. So I should have expected that the restaurant a friend and I taxied to would be closed in the middle of a snow storm, forcing us to walk down Central Avenue looking for an emergency alternative. Right now, nearly every place that I have known is covered in snow: Flagstaff, Lincoln, Moscow, Spokane, and for a while even Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I neurotically plan for contingencies at every step, but it’s good to know that the unexpected isn’t always bad. For me, it takes an effort to relax and take things less seriously. Shout-laughing at the high desert snow while looking for an Italian restaurant in the wind and snow with one of my best friends reminds me that some of the most productive, engaging experiences are surprises, without prediction and against planning.

The stakes are high, for interdisciplinary academic work that actually makes a difference. Back home at the University of Idaho, there are two interdisciplinary efforts to address climate change, first an ecocriticism reading group and second an emerging collaboration between the humanities and sciences to communicate accurate climate science to local communities. This weekend, I realized that not only is pop culture necessary to communicating serious climate science, but framing it all as a doom-and-gloom apocalypse is also counter-productive. The most important part of the countless post-apocalyptic films and novels that have come out in the last five years is that, one way or another, people express survival in terms of art. Despite zombies, drought, or plagues, characters always make room for culture, whatever that culture is, no matter how subtle its recreation and preservation is.

Image result for alt national parksPopular culture studies finds a comfortable home in Albuquerque. This academic field, like the city itself, resists expectations. It forces people to recognize that grave concerns and lightheartedness can coincide.

This conference is an (expensive and limited) opportunity for scholars to “make sense of the things they love.” It’s a space to recognize the ambiguity inherent in everything we interact with: TV, movies, comics, music, genre. All of it has a radical potential to shape the way people see themselves and the world around them. It’s not that pop culture is sacred, but that it has the potential, like the most radical aspects of the world itself, to surprise us.

 

 

-jk